“Burnout” is not only a personal problem, it’s a workplace problem

At work, burnout is not only a personal problem.
At work, burnout is not only a personal problem.
Image: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
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As “burnout” among workers has gained attention in the popular media, a conventional wisdom has developed around avoiding it. Essentially, the advice is to “take care of yourself.” Be healthy. Be strong. Be resilient. Be smarter about time management. Don’t let the stressors get to you—fight on and overcome them. Tips to “combat burnout” in a recent New York Times article, for instance, focused on individual interventions such as deep breathing, taking breaks, taking time off to recover, and working remotely.

Although certainly everyone can benefit from a healthy lifestyle, regular sleep, and mindful practice, as decades-long burnout researchers and the co-editors of the Burnout Research e-journal, we find the underlying message conveyed by this type of advice to be disturbing, namely that burnout is only a personal problem and “you just have to tolerate stressful workplaces.”

People who experience burnout become chronically exhausted, become cynical and detached from their work, and feel increasingly ineffective on the job.  This experience is not simply a sign of personal weakness. In fact, research shows stressors beyond an individual’s control—such as too many demands, unrealistic deadlines, unpredictable schedules, difficult interactions with colleagues or customers, and technology challenges—all contribute to burnout.

Highly stressful workplaces are often poorly designed, socially toxic, and exploitative environments. Why should such workplaces be given a free pass, when they are the sources of stress, while their inhabitants are being told that burnout is their own personal problem and responsibility? Instead of letting such bad job settings off the hook, we should also be focusing on how to improve the workplace environment. Burnout is a signal that things are not going well in the relationship between people and their workplaces, and as with any relationship, both sides need to be part of the solution.

Ergonomics, which examines the relationship between workers and their physical environments, offers one way to create healthier workplaces. Improved designs for seating, computer workstations, and airline cockpits are just a few examples of how an ergonomics approach can improve efficiency, comfort, and safety. We should aim to extend this design approach to the social and psychological environment at work, which we know plays a large role in burnout. Here are a couple of examples:

  1. Members of a workgroup can take action to improve their everyday relationships with colleagues. It is not enough to simply ignore rude and inconsiderate behavior.  Rather, the group should take an active role in insisting that colleagues and, yes, even managers, behave with professional consideration at work. Civility interventions such as CREW (Civility, Respect, & Engagement at Work) and SCORE (Strengthening a Culture of Respect & Engagement), have been shown to reduce socially toxic cultures, and have led to decreases in burnout and absenteeism.
  2. The bitterness and cynicism of burnout can be linked to unfair processes in the workplace, which fail to reward deserving workers or to provide them with the same opportunities given to others. However, such processes can be changed, in ways that are more clearly fair and meaningful for all.  One organization that we worked with decided to revamp a “distinguished service award” that was widely despised as unfair, and instead brought together a team of various employees to develop a better design for recognizing special achievements.  Not only was this new award process accepted with relief and applause, it led to a more positive work culture of shared pride and collegiality.

The lesson to be learned here is that it is indeed possible to redesign the social job environment to better support the people who work in it, and these kinds of social ergonomic changes do not have to be huge or wildly expensive. Poor work conditions should not be considered an inevitability to be suffered in silence. Small steps of improvement can have larger ripple effects as people begin to see that positive change is possible.

The conventional advice about coping with burnout isn’t completely wrong. People should bring their best selves to work. But it is not the whole story about solving the problem. Vibrant workplaces require leaders to apply the most insightful lessons of management science and psychological wellbeing to develop job settings that inspire everyone to do better.  We need to take care of both the workers and the workplace, in order to ensure that the former will thrive and the latter will succeed.

Christina Maslach is a professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Michael P Leiter is a professor of organisational psychology at Deakin University. They are the co-editors of the Burnout Research e-journal.